By Bettany Hughes

20 June 2019 - 07:32

Bettany with Ibrahim from Aleppo
Bettany with Ibrahim from Aleppo. Ibrahim has been learning the accordion at one of Action for Hope’s music schools in Lebanon, supported by the Cultural Protection Fund. Photo ©

British Council

For World Refugee Day, we spoke with the historian, author and broadcaster Bettany Hughes about our connection with the objects we create, and their part in our sense of self and security. 

Do you see similarities between movements of refugees through history?

The story of history is a story of migration.

Communities have been displaced throughout human history. There was one bronze age king who boasted about taking 15,000 prisoners of war. Usually, the men were taken and the women and children had to follow for their survival. So, that number was probably much larger. 

At the beginning of civilisation, about 6,000 years ago, there was an unwritten etiquette of xeniaXenia means a love of both friends and strangers. So, there has always been this notion that you should welcome the unknown across your threshold. There is occasionally a risk involved in welcoming new people, but that notion of being xenophilic, rather than xenophobic, has almost always had good results.

What material links do refugees keep with their homeland?

I spend a lot of time in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon, on the borders of Syria. When I work with people there, I see an absolute determination not to lose hope. All people want to do is go home and rebuild their lives. They talk about that calmly, consistently, and with real dignity.

I have heard of refugees who bury something that they treasure before they leave home. It doesn't necessarily have a lot of monetary value, but it's something that the person wants to retrieve, like a book or piece of furniture. 

I think that act is significant. It shows that people want to go home, and psychologically, it shows that people can imagine a time when they might be able to return and retrieve that object. 

What are the effects of leaving cultural heritage behind?

Thousands of years ago, life was really tough, but people would still make the time to carve a musical instrument out of an animal carcass. That shows the connection we have with the objects we create. Leaving those creations has an effect on people. 

That's why art matters. 

The terrible reverse is, that's why cultural and built heritage has always been targeted throughout the history of warfare, from the early bronze age onward. The loss of that heritage implies that there has been a shift in power. Attackers know that it is an assault on a community's sense of self and security. 

When cultural heritage is rebuilt or returned, what is the effect on the community?

It's proof that you're winning in the business of being human.

We're at our happiest when we're using our hands to create things; the desire to create or destroy is a part of who we are. Rebuilding or gaining back cultural heritage is a statement of hope, and the beauty of normality.

Watch Bettany visit two Cultural Protection Fund initiatives that provide opportunities for displaced Syrian refugees. 

UN World Refugee Day is 20 June.

Follow Bettany on Twitter.

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